Friday, 28 September 2012

A Study of the Correlation between the Extremely Scary Toilet Aerosol Effect and Acute OCD in Toilet Bloggers

OCD is extremely common and can manifest itself in many different ways. At the Privy Counsel, we favour hygiene-related OCD (as opposed to, for instance, extreme hoarding, or preoccupation with sexual, violent or religious thoughts). As this anxiety disorder seems to have become a bit of a theme lately - we've been bandying the link to our article "Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Toilet Roll Holders (But Were Afraid to Ask)" about an awful lot - we thought to ourselves, "hell, why not get a bit festive and do an update on the toilet aerosol effect?" After all, the weekend is approaching!

So, let's talk about the toilet aerosol effect, shall we? This, for the benefit of our non-regular readers, is the phenomenon first described by Dr Charles Gerba, of the University of Arizona, of a mist of bacteria spread across the bathroom by tiny airborne water droplets when flushing the toilet.
The enterprising fellas at Mythbusters conducted a related experiment with toothbrushes. They kept a bunch of toothbrushes in different locations in the bathroom for a month, and then employed a snazzy science lady to check the bacterial levels in the bristles. Obviously what we're all dying to know is, were the toothbrushes infested with faecal bacteria? We think you know, in your heart of hearts, what the answer is.

Festive video - Mythbusters, Surprise Toothbrush MiniMyth
The toilet aerosol effect: A very scary concept. Image from Innovationsupplychain.

The idea of a squadron of water-borne toilet bacteria parachuting down onto your toothbrush is obviously most unpleasant. So what to do? The first thing that springs to many people's minds is to put the toilet lid down when flushing. That bedrock of factual, level-headed journalism, the Daily Mail, favours this approach. Quoting Professor Mark Wilcox at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, the Daily Mail says,
"[...] Although it was unlikely that keeping the lid up would be a 'huge' health hazard, their findings suggested patients with a superbug should at least have a dedicated toilet.
He added that their research also had wider implications, telling the Mail Online: 'It would be prudent if there is a lid to put it down after flushing. [...] Some bugs spread more easily to surfaces this way and the norovirus is thought to be one of them. Our advice - put down the lid if it's there and wash your hands afterwards.'"
Professor Wilcox has been studying the spread of the C. Difficile bacteria in hospitals. The study concluded that the lack of hospital toilet lids may impede progress in this field.

C. difficile: So cute. So resistant to antibiotics.  Image from Giant Microbes

However (and there's always a "however" when discussing hygiene), a study by J. Barker and M. V. Jones, published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, comes to a different conclusion. The article, cunningly named "The Potential Spread of Infection Caused by Aerosol Contamination of Surfaces after Flushing a Domestic Toilet", says:
"Closing the toilet lid had little effect in reducing the number of bacteria released into the air which was c. 1000 CFU m−3 after the first flush (data not shown). Although splashes would probably have been contained by closing the lid, there was a gap of 15 mm between the top of the porcelain rim and the seat, and also a gap between the seat and the lid of 12 mm which would allow aerosols to escape into the room. Conversely, Darlow and Bale (1959) found that closing the lid reduced the aerosol concentration by a ratio of 1 : 2 but their measurements were performed using a ‘wash-down’ toilet and an impinger air sampler. In contrast, Bound and Atkinson (1966) found that closing the lid did not significantly reduce the bacterial count in the air from a ‘wash-down’ toilet seeded with E. coli using a slit sampler positioned at seat level."
The idea of toilets spewing out clouds of lethal bacteria so terrifies us
that our capacity for critical thinking has been impaired, and we are reduced
to posting lolcat pictures. Image from Suzannekesten.

While we're all in favour of developing mild-to-life-threatening OCD (this is how we get our kicks in a small town on a very limited budget), there are limits. Some people calling themselves The Maids, expressing concern over the toilet aerosol effect, recommend the following hygiene measures to protect yourself from inhaling nasty microscopic creatures:
  • Leave disinfecting wipes in the bathroom and wipe down your sink, drain and faucet handles daily to minimize germs and bacteria. The sink is the most prevalent place for bacteria.
  • When cleaning your bathroom weekly, first mist over the sink, toilet and counters with a disinfecting spray. Let the spray dry completely before using other cleaning products.
  • After your fiberglass shower, sink and tub are clean and dry, use Turtle Wax. It will protect and polish surfaces and guard against dirt and grime so cleaning is easier the next week.
Frankly, we've got better things to do.

To combat our mounting hysteria, we let ourselves be soothed by the comforting, dulcet tones of Dr Know. Watch his toothbrush-testing video here.

How clean is your toilet? Image from Honeyishrunkthegrief

Further reading:
Potential for aerosolization of Clostridium difficile after flushing toilets: the role of toilet lids in reducing environmental contamination risk (synopsis)
Most hospital C. difficile cases have not spread from other patients
Handwashing tips from the Privy Counsel
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Toilet Rolls (But Were Afraid to Ask)
All OCD-Related Links

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